For more than 500 miles, I'd watched heads snap around as if they'd spotted Heidi Klum doing the Lady Godiva bit on the back of a pink elephant. Drivers jammed on their brakes to get a better look. Passengers pointed in curious puzzlement. Food and gas stops became spontaneous Q&A sessions. And even pulling alongside the road to check my map was met with a tap on the window from someone wanting to know "just what the hell" I was driving.

The Pontiac Aztek was designed with a vision. Some get it, some don't. Some think it's the coolest thing for the outdoor enthusiast since Gore-Tex; some think it's an oozing blemish on the fine art of automotive design. But whether you get it or not, it still makes you look. And Pontiac/GMC is hoping at least 60,000 buyers a year will share this vision.

There's nothing subtle about the Aztek; its in-your-face styling generates strong love-it-or-hate-it passions. The exterior exhibits a showcar gaudiness perceived as either edgy or over the top. The interior is a cross between typically bold Pontiac styling and a window display at the local scuba shop. A diving watch, for instance, provided the inspiration for the circular instrument panel bezel with molded-in Allen-head bolts. The textured, rubberized door pulls, meanwhile, were patterned after the handle of a diving knife. The look and feel of the great active outdoors permeates the vehicle.

Yet, as much attention as the Aztek's looks get, the real story is inside. Taking a cue from the Nissan Xterra's versatile range of accessories, the Aztek team has raised the bar several notches by incorporating some of the most innovative features this side of a Swiss Army Knife. The center console between the front two seats, for instance, has a removeable tray, CD-case holder, and plenty of room for maps and such. So, what's the news? Pull up the side handle, and it lifts out as a small insulated cooler, capable of holding a six-pack of beverages. Like to tailgate party? The tailgate is molded to form two sitting areas with cupholders. When you need to change the tunes, you can easily adjust the audio system using optional controls mounted near the rear hatch. Plus, the rear speakers are tilted rearward to make sure the music gets outside where all the action is.

There are water-resistant, washable seat covers, a roof-mounted bike rack, and an integrated air compressor. And, if you're not the motel type, Pontiac's Camping Lifestyle Package turns the Aztek into a mobile campsite. It includes a two-person air mattress-with built-in air pump-that spreads out on the Aztek's flat cargo floor. And to let the night air in but keep the mosquitoes out, a custom-fit tent-with zip-up screened door-fits over the rear end of the vehicle when the rear door and tailgate are open.

Want more? An optional rear sliding cargo tray makes it easy to load up to 400 pounds worth of stuff without having to lean over the tailgate, and then easily slides back into the rear compartment. And the tray has two internal storage cubbies, one with pop-up cargo nets to help hold groceries and such.

The Aztek was developed off the Montana minivan platform, but shares only 22 percent of its parts with the van. Among them is the 3.4-liter OHV V-6 and four-speed automatic transmission. The engine's 185 peak horsepower and 210 pound-feet give the Aztek ample power, letting it handle hills and highways with decent aplomb. Its 9.2-second 0-60-mph time outpaces the Mitsubishi Montero Sport by 1.5 seconds, edges out the Jeep Cherokee Sport by 0.2 second, and equals the Isuzu Rodeo. The overall refinement of the engine and tranny, though, isn't up to some of its smoother-running competition. Traction control is available as an option, and next January, Pontiac will be introducing its new Versatrak all-wheel-drive system, adding additional all-weather/rough-terrain capability.

The Aztek's MacPherson-strut front suspension shares similar componentry with the Montana although it's tuned closer to that of the Grand Prix, lending the Aztek a firmer, more sure-footed feel with less body lean than the minivan. The Aztek also upholds the Pontiac wide-track tradition with one of the widest tracks in its class-62.7 inches in front, 63.8 in the rear. While the Aztek's at-the-limit handling numbers are no threat to, say, the BMW X5, these dimensions help it thread through the slalom at a sprightly 60.2 mph, edging out the Xterra (55.6), Cherokee Sport (57.9), and Rodeo (59.7).

Inside, the Aztek is pleasantly comfortable and roomy, even in the rear seat area. And the 50/50 split seats can be folded down, flipped forward, or lifted out. Removing them opens up a cavernous 93.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity, with dimensions large enough to carry a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood (with the tailgate down).

The Aztek is available in two trim levels. The base model carries an MSRP of $21,995, while the uplevel GT runs $24,995. Major options include leather seating, head-up display, rear captain's chairs, rear-seat audio, in-dash six-disc CD changer with rear-cargo-area radio controls, and OnStar communication service. The upcoming AWD model with Versatrak is expected to sticker for under $25,000, and a loaded AWD GT model will probably push $30 grand.

The vision of the Aztek is versatility and style. It's for active outdoor recreation enthusiasts who don't want to be limited by their vehicle. On that score, it works. The question that remains is whether its unconventional look will be an asset or a liability.

Specifications
Vehicle configuration Front engine, front drive, 4-door, 5-pass.
Engine type 60° V-6, OHV, 2 valves/cyl.
Displacement, ci/cc 207/3350
Horsepower, hp @ rpm, SAE net 185 @ 5200
Torque, lb-ft @ rpm, SAE net 210 @ 4000
Transmission type 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase, in./mm 108.3/4625
Base curb weight, lb 3779
0-60 mph, sec 9.2
Standing quarter mile, sec/mph 16.7/82.3
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 139
Lateral acceleration, g 0.72
Speed through 600-ft slalom, mph 60.2
EPA fuel economy, mpg, city/hwy. 19/26
Base price $21,445
Price as tested $26,000 (est.)
www.pontiac.com
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